Exit polling shows trial wasn't a factor for many

Supporters rally round Stevens

November 5, 2008 

Orthodox wisdom should dictate that voters would flee in droves from an incumbent who had just been convicted of felony crimes. But that would grossly underestimate the affection loyalists have for Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

In his home state, the corruption trial of the Senate's longest serving Republican was not an important element for more than half of voters surveyed in an Associated Press exit poll. One out every three of those voters said it was not factor at all.

"The trial had nothing too flagrant or serious," said Republican voter David Valdez Jr., who was unwavering in his support for the 84-year-old senator. Stevens, who has brought billions in federal funds to Alaska, is just too valuable to reject now, according to Valdez.

That sentiment could explain why the exit poll and incomplete ballot results had the 40-year incumbent with a very slight lead - 3,363 votes - over Democratic rival Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. More than 60,000 absentee and questioned ballots remain to be counted, so the outcome may be days in coming.

The preliminary results surprised Anchorage pollster Dave Dittman, whose election day forecast called for a solid win by Begich. Dittman also called for defeat for Republican Congressman Don Young - another old-timer under an ethics cloud - but in both the AP exit poll and in preliminary results the 18-term incumbent was comfortably ahead of Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, a former state lawmaker.

"The real question is where were the all the Democrats?" Dittman said, noting the voter turnout was supposed to be in record proportions. Instead, only an estimated 57 percent of registered voters had a say - a far drop from the 66 percent turnout in the 2004 presidential election, according to state elections division figures.

Election day arrived little more than a week after Stevens was found guilty of lying on Senate records to hide hundreds of thousands of dollars in home renovations and gifts he received from a millionaire businessman. Stevens is appealing and told voters he's not a convicted felon, at least until the appeal process is over.

Troubles among the federal jury, including violent outbursts in the jury room, likely worked in the 40-year senator's favor, according to Dittman. He said the tipping point may have been a juror who vanished after saying her father had died, only to re-emerge Monday on the eve of the election and tell a judge she lied and actually crossed the country to watch horse races.

In the final days of the campaign, more voters likely believed Stevens' talk of being wrongly convicted in an unfair trial, Dittman said.

"This was a strange jury composed of pretty strange people," he said. "It could have been hard to take their verdict seriously, a feeling that this man was wronged. The further from the verdict and the closer to the election, the better it got for Stevens."

Voters who gave no weight at all to the trial overwhelmingly supported Stevens, with only a fourth of them siding with Begich. More than half of those who said it was a factor to any degree backed Begich.

Phillip Nicholi, an independent voter from Anchorage, said he doesn't believe Stevens is guilty. But that wasn't enough to get his vote.

"I voted for Begich," he said. "Stevens has just been there too long."

Both Stevens and Begich had majority support among gun-owners, those who favor allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and those who approved of the way Sarah Palin handled her job as governor.

The incumbents also were backed by most voters who supported Republican presidential candidate John McCain. McCain and running mate Palin, won Alaska, but lost the national vote to Democrat Barack Obama.

Like McCain, Stevens and Young performed best in small cities and rural areas, such as the region that includes Palin's hometown of Wasilla, where she served two terms as mayor. The two also were heavily supported by a great majority of voters identifying themselves as white evangelical or born-again Christians.

Begich and Berkowitz took the lead in Anchorage.

The survey of 1,294 Alaska voters was conducted for AP by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. Most were interviewed in a random sample of 20 precincts statewide Tuesday; 258 who voted early or absentee were interviewed by landline telephone over the last week. Results for the full sample were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, higher for subgroups.

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